Decades ago, William Holden’s disenchanted screenwriter in “Sunset Blvd.” lamented, “Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors made it up as they went along.”
That may well have been the case in Norma Desmond’s day. This year, audiences and critics have often just left wishing they had.
While cinematic history is sprinkled with inspired performances that elevate otherwise unremarkable pics, this year’s award race has seen a particularly hefty crowd of Oscar-owning thesps carrying films that sometimes had little else to love.
Perennial Oscar favorite Cate Blanchett is still very much in the running for actress honors in the
reviewer-savaged “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.” Two-time winner Jodie Foster pulled off a powerful perf in the ambivalently received “The Brave One.” Past recipients Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro both brought their A-game to the nearly unseen “Things We Lost in the Fire.” And “Pollock” supporting actress winner Marcia Gay Harden remains in contention for “Rails and Ties,” a movie whose Metacritic grade would seem to require a signed note from the filmmakers’ parents.
And then there’s Marion Cotillard, who has emerged as a front-runner for her turn as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en rose,” a film that sharply divided critics. Calling the film “a complete mess” in his New York Times review, A.O. Scott explained: “In this kind of picture the story, the production design and the mise-en-scene need only provide adequate scaffolding for a heroically superfluous act of impersonation.”
Despite shaky reviews for other apsects of these films, any of these personal perfs could see their way to a nomination, as the Academy has become more willing to honor actors outside of the kudo juggernauts.
“The quality of acting frequently stands out in mediocre films,” Scott says. “Certain actors will always be interesting to watch — Laura Linney, Jeff Bridges, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nicole Kidman come to mind — no matter what they’re in.”
According to film critic and author David Thomson, this is very much a new trend.
“It used to be that major films could count on nominations across a wide range of categories, usually at least four of the major ones,” Thomson notes. “Nowadays, the Academy is much more likely to pick apart individual elements from films, regardless of their size or their overall chances.”
In recent years, one-nom wonders have become commonplace in the acting categories. In 2003, “Monster” scored zero Oscar nominations save Charlize Theron’s winning lead turn — likewise “Girl, Interrupted,” represented solely by an Angelina Jolie supporting actress coup, and “The Last King of Scotland,” shut out for all but Forest Whitaker’s statue-nabbing portrayal of Idi Amin.
Thomson sees this as a positive step, allowing attention for “strange roles that normally wouldn’t get nominations.” It can also be a boon for smaller films at risk of being smothered in the blitzkrieg of Oscar campaigning, with the familiar face of a lead star providing something of a synecdoche on which to hang a film’s kudo hopes.
Of course, there’s always the danger that directors who excel at coaching actors can be left in the cold for their work — ask Richard Eyre, who has been behind the camera for five Oscar-nommed performances in the last decade, without any Oscar attention for himself.
James Mangold, unnominated despite directing both Jolie and Reese Witherspoon (“Walk the Line”) to Oscar-winning turns, stresses that while top actors are often their own best judges, film remains an intrinsically collaborative medium.
“In the case of truly great actors, which was the case with Angelina and Reese, they have such a great bullshit detector for themselves, they know when they’re good … and when they’re not. But I’ve found that even the greatest actors — especially the greatest actors — are always interested in constructive criticism that helps them get to someplace further and deeper.”
Thomson, however, sees a sea change occurring.
“I think that people have begun to realize that directors don’t necessarily work with actors in the old Elia Kazan way,” he opines. “Oftentimes, directors are more focused on proper casting, with the actor then more responsible for the shape of the role.”
Such news would certainly put a smile back on Norma Desmond’s face.